For the past 12 years, I have kept on my desk the two small volumes of the collection entitledHistoriographies, Concepts et débats, edited by C. Delacroix, F. Dosse, P. Garcia and N. Offenstadt, which is, as they say, an “overview of the current situation”. They begin by writing that “The past belongs to everyone and the appropriations that are made of it all have their own legitimacy.” For them, the history of professional historians represents one type of relationship to the past among others, a “discipline that produces knowledge” and that “puts contemporary uses of the past into perspective.” This definition allows me to both acknowledge the forms of the past that my students and community members carry around in their suitcases, and to point to the specificity and solidity of my task as a “professional historian,” with its rules, its ways of working with facts, and its ways of subjecting its findings to peer critique.
My preferences are accumulating but, since last year, the work of historian Gérard Noiriel has helped me a lot. The book he wrote with sociologist Stéphane Béaud, Race et sciences sociales. Essai sur les usages publics d’une catégorie, is a study of the transformations in the relations between intellectuals and politicians since the 19th century, a reflection on the boundaries between what they call “the autonomy of science” and commitment. They place the theories prevalent in the United States in their contexts, present approaches born in other circumstances, and illustrate their program of studying public life with an excursion into the world of French soccer. Alongside them, and for a longer time (1988), Arlette Farge’s book, La vie fragile. Violence, pouvoirs et solidarités à Paris au XVIIIe siècle, is a great example for me, for the richness and subtlety of its account of the relations between daily life and political struggles. In Canada, I try in my teaching to do justice to the legacy of many of my teachers who, in their time, took their responsibility of transmitting knowledge seriously, while at the same time showing respect, generosity and openness to the generations that followed them. Among my colleagues in Canada, to name just two, the versatility and rigour of Joy Parr’s writings are extraordinary and, for the younger generation, Lisa Pasolli’s study of British Columbia’s child care centres provides a remarkably acute insight into the recurrent and painful mechanisms, both material and ideological, of the manufacture of poverty.
I have just completed a short biography of Leslie Chance, the senior Canadian official who presided over the preparatory work for the United Nations Commission on the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It is a history of Canada’s relationship with the international refugee protection regime, a chapter written at the request of my collaborators in the LERRN group, for a collection of articles on the subject. Thanks to rapid research on digital platforms (Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec dailies, League of Nations archives, old books on Internet Archives, images from UN photographers, etc.), and the meticulous documentation work of the editor of the diaries of the Canadian international jurist and Chance’s colleague, John Humphrey, I was able to piece together the life of this little-known figure. At the same time, all sorts of connections have emerged with indigenous, military, concentration camp, philanthropic, state, and imperial histories that allow the story of international politics to be told differently. I worked as hard on the form of the story as I did on the variety of content and the visual aspects; I’m happy with the result, although I’m still not sure how it’s going to fit yet.
I was able to think closely about the place of French in the discipline. The CHA already represents a unique place of exchange between French and English: the historical pamphlets, the series of pamphlets on immigration and ethnicity in Canada, allow me to teach the work of French authors otherwise little translated in English: Micheline Dumont, Normand Séguin, Martin Pâquet. I have tried to build new bridges with the IHAF (conferences; joint public interventions), given my presidential address in French using visual means to make myself best understood, encouraged discussions on the future of francophone academic publications in an increasingly anglophone world, drawn attention to little-known anglophone historiographies that arrive via the writings of Canada’s francophones, and encouraged colleagues to take advantage of the Humanities and Social Sciences Federation of Canada’s translation program for academic works.
This is it: the most important association you have got to promote bigger and more interesting material and institutional support to researchers and students of all belongings, in front of all levels of government, whatever the kind of history you do yourself. For people who want to join the governance structure, the encouragement my own doctoral supervisor, Bettina Bradbury, gave me in 1990 when she thought I should enter the editorial board of the Journal of the CHA, still holds: you will meet all sorts of interesting people. And the wise advice of a Board member who were there before me has served me beyond the the CHA: it is better to join the archives’ consultative body, to voice an opinion and to tell our members how we have done so (this was at a time when LAC was not behaving much towards the common good) than to go away and let them take dubious directions without even knowing what they are doing; you have it on record that they were told, they won’t be able to plead ignorance.
In the humanities and social sciences, public libraries and archives are the equivalent of our colleagues’ laboratories in the hard sciences. The maintenance and improvement of these institutions. Preservation and updating of the code of ethics for working with these institutions is crucial, and historians must collaborate to ensure their continuation and quality. For example, pay attention to the constitution of large digital catalogs, the acquisition of archives, etc. and try to represent historians.
Whose history are we talking about when we talk about the history of Canadians? Is it the history of the families of Canadians today, regardless of where they were 100 years ago, or is it only the history of families whose ancestors were in Canada in the past? Looking at the history of Canadians today, regardless of where they were 100 years ago, way leads to rich transnational explorations.